The Divine Comedy

I was going to write about Dick Greco today, but instead I think I'll pen some words about my good friend, God. The shift in gears isn't that hard. Both beings require a considerable effort of faith to conclude that whatever it is that they're up to is for the best.

Let me tell you about God. No, please don't worry. I'm not about to lapse into speaking in tongues. I have healed no one today, and I haven't had visions or heard voices. Nor do I want contributions (although if any of you feel in any way "saved" after reading this, checks or just plain cash — heck, gold will do in a pinch — can be sent c/o the Weekly Planet).

Here's what prompted this journey into metaphysics. Those who follow my every word, and I assume all of you do, will recall that my wife and I, generally sensible people, while riding our donkeys (OK, our SUV) on the road to Damascus (well, actually, it was Wimauma) were smitten by a blinding beam (it might have been the undimmed headlight from an oncoming truck, but it could just as easily have been divine) and a voice commanded us (or was that my stomach growling) to: "Go, thee, and adopteth children." Which we dideth.

One of our cherubs — we'll call him "A" — recently got into some kid trouble. Serious, but far short of amassing an arsenal of automatic weapons and a Nazi library in his room. The wise and kindly father that I am, I suggested more regular attendance at church would be appropriate for Mr. A.

To which the young sir responded in a fierce challenge: "I don't believe in God."

Well, I've been through my atheist periods. They've been quite useful when I've wanted to be a nasty SOB and not have to worry about Heaven and Hell (actually, I've often thought hanging out in Limbo with Aristotle and the Enlightened Pagans would be quite entertaining).

I've also flirted with agnosticism, several denominations to be exact, ranging from the positive variety (He's probably there, and it's a good thing because being an atheist is scary as hell) to the negative (He's probably there and the whole intent of creation is to make me miserable). Not to mention deism, the faith practiced by our nation's founding fathers such as Tom Jefferson and George Washington (He's probably there, but got bored with this outfit called humanity and is looking for more exciting action on a different astral plane). For years, if people asked my religion, I'd respond that I belonged to the Church of God the Utterly Indifferent.

I gave Mr. a long look and a longer sigh. He puffed up in adolescent defiance. Finally, I intoned without plotting out my words (oops), "Son, that doesn't matter. God believes in you."

Immediately that little committee that meets in the back of my mind and endlessly debates my life started screaming in unison: "You didn't say that! Tell us you didn't say that!"

But I had. I suddenly realized the God(excuse me)awful truth. I had actually affirmed, albeit in a somewhat oblique fashion, the existence of a Being Greater Than Myself.

What an astounding concept.

I still don't know where the "God believes in you" line came from. Maybe I hadn't flipped past the televangelists fast enough one Sunday morning.

Whatever, I had this 12-year-old boy looking at me with puzzlement. I had just parachuted us both into hitherto unexplored territory.

With the kids, with anyone, I'm happy to endorse ethics, personal morality (as opposed to Holy Buckhornism, which holds that the state has a right to impose on its citizens whatever standards are likely to win votes for politicians) and a general something that, lacking a better cliche, I'll call "spirituality." But I'm usually a little vague in discourse on exactly what precisely I believe about The Lord.

Because I just don't know.

Some things make me run for cover. For a start, it's hard to escape Christianity around here. To me, Jesus' biggest selling point is that he never claimed to be a Christian and never once commanded his followers to commit genocide, burn people at the stake, engage in pogroms, launch inquisitions and generally revel in all sorts of heinous and beastly crimes while claiming God's blessing. That Christians have focused much of their energy on such bloodthirsty activities was one of the things that, when I was Mr. A's age, propelled me like a rocket right out of organized religion, especially after discovering that virtually all faiths have been ready, willing and very, very eager to slaughter in the name of their deity.

As I grew older, I also had problems with such theological contortions as the "trinity" (was God the first to suffer from multiple-personality disorder?). Then there was "grace." As I understood that, I could end up sitting in Heaven next to Adolph Hitler, Charles Manson and even Strom Thurmond, provided they had "accepted Jay-sus and been cleansed in his blood" in the final millisecond of their lives.

That's where I more or less left off thinking about religion about 11 years ago. Then I had some changes in my life. There were some habits I felt I could do without, but had had a hard time shaking. So, I began exploring 12-step programs and encountered that aforementioned overworked word, "spirituality." People told me that if I really wanted to stop (fill in the blank), I needed to ask a "Higher Power" for help. Arrogance being my preferred mode of existence, it took a long time and a lot of pain before I said what was surely my first prayer in 25 years or so.

It worked, at least for me. Best of all, "spirituality" was vague enough that I could pretty much create a God with whom I could get along without any major compromises on my basic agnostic/deist beliefs.

Still, the 12-step programs are a little irritating because, for them to work, you more or less have to become a better person — which is another way of saying that God is less defined by you and you are more defined by him. Heavy stuff for an unrepentant radical-hippie-pinko.

Nonetheless, even with 12-step improvements, I remained comfortable in my religious amorphousness.

Then this annoying little guy, Mr. A, erupted with his prepubescent nihilism. I remembered when I first got a whiff of the heady stuff at Mr. A's age. There was a band in the 1960s formed by poet Allan Ginsberg called the Fugs, and they had a song called "Nothing." The lyrics were sheer genius. "Monday nothing, Tuesday nothing, Wednesday and Thursday nothing, Friday for a change a little more nothing, Saturday once more nothing."

I just love the hopelessness of existentialism. But when confronted with a bud of it in the form of Mr. A, I didn't want him to repeat my being lost for decades in the wilderness of nothingness.

Much of my generation, I suspect, wrestles with God. We rebelled, and in seeking social and economic justice, an end to war and racism, those who consider themselves "progressives" (or those who are merely apathetic) relinquished the moral high ground to the religious right, which is neither very religious (in the sense of emulating Christ) nor right (as opposed to wrong).

This overriding angst of society that kids are bad and getting worse stems in part, I'd argue, from the lack of spiritual leadership by adults. (It also stems from the total degradation of the mass media, which are quickly turning all of our minds into festering puss — but that's another sermon.) We go to a church that's pretty mainstream. I can't honestly tell Mr. A that I believe everything the minister says. I do tell my son that I believe the minister is trying to find the truth and trying to create some little bit of good in the community. And I tell Mr. A that in some fashion, he will be judged for the life he leads and the kind of man he chooses to become. I don't have a good ending to this column because I still haven't figured out God. Maybe I'll, uh, (boy, it takes a lot to say the word) pray on it.

* * *

On our letters page last week, Tampa Tribune reporter Kurt Loft took me to task for broadbrushing all of the newspaper's journalists as ethically challenged when I criticized former sports editor and columnist Tom McEwen. It's pretty clear in my columns on McEwen that he is the object of my criticism, along with the top managers who allowed his corrupt brand of journalism to infest the newspaper. However, Loft — a reporter I've long respected — has a point. I don't specifically say that the journalists in the Trib's trenches are a fine bunch of people, and I should. The newspaper's quality has declined in recent years, home circulation in Hillsborough County has plunged, and the staff has suffered — but that is the fault of management. At an individual level, the reporters, editors, photojournalists and artists at the Tribune are talented and ethical — and could, if allowed and encouraged by management, put out a first-rate newspaper.

His Editorial Eminence, the Most Right Rev. John Sugg, can be reached at 813-248-8888, ext. 109, or at [email protected].